Invisible Light

Nevada Wier’s color infrared images show the people and places she photographs in an ethereal and surreal way

Known for her work in remote and exotic parts of the world, Nevada Wier has been experimenting with and refining her infrared work for several years. The photos have a surreal look and a glow that make them positively mesmerizing. Above: Young monk, Thingyan Monastery, Salay, Myanmar, 2009.

Six years ago, I began exploring the challenge of making the invisible visible—photographing unusual places using a digital camera and the unusual, haunting light of infrared. I’m now a devotee of invisible light!

Oxcart in Ngonegyi Village, Chindwin River, Myanmar, 2013.

Our visual world is limited to the colors of visible light. Beyond what our eyes can see is the iridescent world of the infrared (IR) spectrum. Infrared light has a longer wavelength than visible light, and is just beyond the range that we humans can detect with our eyesight. IR rests just to the right of visible light on the electromagnetic spectrum chart. For infrared photography, the camera, whether film or digital, needs to be made sensitive to near-infrared wavelengths (700 to 1200 nanometers); far-infrared is the province of thermal imaging, with wavelengths closer to microwave.

Robert W. Wood published the first infrared photographs in 1910, but IR photography was a cumbersome process. In the 1930s, Kodak developed emulsions that were sensitive to infrared light and introduced them to the commercial market. Kodak’s black-and-white infrared film was the popular choice, although a number of manufacturers developed different kinds of infrared film.

Great one-horned rhinoceroses, Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India, 2010.

In 1974, I began my photographic adventures working in the wet darkroom with black-and-white film. I loved the alchemy of the darkroom, watching images miraculously emerge from the stop bath. I spent every spare moment developing film and printing images. By the late 1980s, however, I had abandoned black-and-white film and the darkroom for Kodachrome, a color transparency film. My printing days were over. Travel and color photography were my new passions.

A number of photographers I admired were working with black-and-white infrared film, and I was entranced by their images. However, I wasn’t willing to return to the wet darkroom. From 1998 to 2003, I experimented with Kodak Ektachrome Professional Infrared/EIR transparency film, which could be developed in standard E-6 chemistry. The images didn’t have an ethereal feeling, but they did have vivid, kooky, mostly unpredictable colors—greens became reds, brown water became blue, etc. While I loved it, I couldn’t find a commercial use for it.

Camel trader at Pushkar Fair, Rajasthan, India, 2010.

I switched 100% to digital cameras in 2004. Not only did I prefer the expanded dynamic range of digital images and exposure flexibility, I also knew I was finally going to be able to print my own color images. I had rarely made a print from a color transparency, and after using such beautiful black-and-white papers as Ilford Portriga Rapid and Agfa Brovira, I couldn’t bear to print my color images on the generic “matte or glossy.” But now, with digital, the world of color printing was in a renaissance, with new, stunning archival papers and inks, as well as portable color printers. I was out of the darkroom and into The Grayroom (yes, my walls are 18% gray). I was coming full circle back to my love of printing. I reread Ansel Adams books on printing, studied with some present-day printing masters, experimented with papers and learned enough of Photoshop to craft a print. Crafting a fine-art print is similar to sculpting. The image on a print has to have a soul of its own, and the print of that image needs to stand alone like a sculpture, with presence and depth.

In 2007, about the same time as I had my first show of color images, I discovered that digital cameras were the perfect device for recording the hidden beauty of infrared light, and there were many more creative possibilities than before.

Digital cameras are so sensitive to infrared light that manufacturers place a filter in front of the sensor to block the infrared light from spoiling regular photographs. By removing this filter and replacing it with one that blocks most of the visible light, the photographer is able to record near-infrared light with a bit of visible, deep red light. The result is a surreal image with a bit of color, usually shades of blues and amber with occasional magenta. (There are a number of places where you can convert a digital camera to infrared red; I use a company called LifePixel,

Left: Dressed for Carnaval in Barrio Abajo, Barranquilla, Colombia, 2013.
Center: Dongri Khond tribe girl, Sakata village, Orissa, India, 2012.
Right: Young boys from the Tangkhul Naga tribe, Sithai village, Manipur, India, 2012.

It’s possible to avoid having a camera converted and, instead, use a filter to block the visible light from your sensor (usually, a Hoya R72 or Wratten 89B), but the filter is dark and it costs you approximately eight stops of light, so it becomes necessary to use a tripod for exposures that can last up to 30 seconds. I don’t often use a tripod because my subjects are usually people who are in motion. It’s also very difficult to focus with these filters because the viewfinder becomes virtually opaque. I think it makes much more sense to use an older digital camera and convert it for infrared photography.

There are many infrared conversion choices—Super Color IR, Enhanced Color, Super Blue IR, Deep BW IR and more. I’ve worked with a number of the different conversions, and my favorite is the Standard conversion. I like the subtle look of the images and their discreet touches of color.

With a camera that has been modified for IR shooting, Wier generates RAW files and applies a custom profile to get the tones and colors just right. Above: A scene from a Dong Tribe festival in Huanggang village, Guizhou, China, 2012.

Photographing with IR light has different complications than visible light. The sun is the primary source of infrared light; thus, the best infrared photographs tend to be captured in direct sunlight or bright, open shade. IR light has a longer wavelength, coming into focus at a different point than visible light, so it’s difficult to predict exactly where the focal point will be in an image. It’s possible to convert your camera so you can focus accurately with your LCD screen, but that isn’t convenient for me; I need to work quickly, so using a viewfinder is my preference. Therefore, I keep my IR camera on Aperture Priority at ƒ/8 or ƒ/11, and I adjust the ISO, as necessary. It does mean that focus can be hit or miss, so sometimes I actually bracket my focusing. This approach has worked well for me so far.

Processing and printing an infrared image requires a deft understanding of technology in order to bring forth the subtle colors within. It’s necessary to make a custom white balance for your converted IR camera. I usually use a white sheet of paper in direct sunlight; some people like to use green foliage. Unfortunately, most editing programs—Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, Apple Aperture, etc.—can’t read a custom profile for a RAW infrared image, as the temperature range is beyond these programs. If you use JPEGs instead of RAW, then you’re in luck, as the white balance is embedded in your processed JPEG image. Since the image on the back of your camera actually displays a JPEG of your RAW image with the custom white balance, it looks great—there. However, as soon as you bring it into Lightroom or another program, it pops to a wild magenta. I’ve found that a lot of people get flustered by this and elect to solve the magenta problem by turning their IR images into black-and-white images. They then miss out on the subtle colors inherent in an IR image.

Initially, I photographed RAW+JPEG and edited the JPEGs in Lightroom. When I found an image I liked, I’d process the RAW version in the Canon Digital Photo Professional software, convert the image to a TIFF file and then work on the image in Photoshop. It was a laborious, but effective process. However, recently, I discovered that when I use the free Adobe DNG Converter application, I can make a custom profile for my IR camera. The profile is installed in the Color Calibration menu, and I can use it when importing RAW images into my library. Voilà! The custom white balance is revealed. It’s a beautiful thing!

Infrared images make compelling prints. I currently have a show at the Verve Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with 32 infrared images. I make all of my prints in my studio; I feel the same magic today as I did watching images emerge in the darkroom, although now they come from a printer. As with all of my images, I crop sparingly and never change any content. However, I do make choices about how deep or saturated I want the inherent blue, yellow and, occasionally, magenta tones to appear in a print.

I’m not ready to completely turn myself into solely an infrared photographer. When I’m traveling and photographing, I carry two Canon EOS 5D Mark III cameras—one for visible light and one for infrared light. I increasingly reach more and more often for the IR camera. The resulting photographs are truly travel images in a different light. What’s invisible becomes art—revealed.

See more of Nevada Wier‘s photography at